Mon, Mar 26, 2012 - Page 8 News List

Self-censorship and ROC’s legacy

By Philippe McKay

“Consciously or unconsciously, people censor themselves — they don’t need to be called into line.”

This Pierre Bourdieu quote seems to be quite fitting in describing behavior that can only be seen as normative in regards to the internal workings of Taiwanese politics and government. Although much of his work is focused within a French context, it will not escape observers of Taiwanese society that Taiwan has decision-makers who regularly disassociate themselves from the actions of their subordinates. Naturally, Taiwanese leaders communicate well-patented public messages of ignorance with the full knowledge that their subordinates take their cues from superiors.

During this year’s election, Minister of Finance Christina Liu (劉憶如) and her TaiMed campaign was explained away by President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and his running mate, vice president-elect Wu Den-yih (吳敦義), as not being under the influence of those who are responsible for her patronage. Now, another arm of the government, the Council of Agriculture (COA), has been exposed as not fulfilling its own responsibilities in favor of political considerations. It is possibly an unfortunate circumstance for Taiwanese society that the media limits itself only to the COA because undoubtedly the very same behavior is practiced in every part of the Taiwanese governmental system. Yet, even the opposition does not seem to be looking at this as a -comprehensive issue that goes to the roots of how the bureaucracy and the executive of government are structured within the Republic of China (ROC), which ensures specific behavioral patterns. Rather, their messages seem to take on the appearance of playing for political points.

The current series of missteps involving food safety seem to have occurred during the recent electoral campaign. Interestingly, the media does not frame it as a clear example of undue influence from ambitious entities.

That said, one should not be able to ignore that it looks very much like the Ma administration allowed the resources of the bureaucracy to be used to help secure Ma’s re-election by having the bureaucracy put out messages attempting to damage the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and sweeping under the carpet issues that could negatively affect Ma’s administration. Thankfully, the election campaign is over, because if it was not, these safety issues would likely still be shelved.

Self-censorship is part and parcel of politics. The current scandal in food safety is not simply an event, but a process of failures derived not just from patterns of self-censorship, but also from the legacy of how the ROC was conceived as a system and how its relationship with society in general was perceived. Government offices that continue to operate in isolation from each other are regularly exposed to political forces bound by patronage. This ensures that each department of the Taiwanese bureaucracy will only be able to present a facade of fulfilling their duties. One could never expect them to be able fulfill the spirit of those responsibilities because autonomy is clearly absent.

The Chinese milk scandal that began before the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and was only revealed afterward might also have implications for Taiwanese food safety. If one remembers, Taiwanese officials said milk products were safe in Taiwan and that the melamine issue was exclusively a “Chinese” problem.

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